God bless text messaging

by Rob Horning

14 October 2008


Like Ezra Klein, I’m puzzled by this cranky screed by Louis Menand about text messaging in the New Yorker. It’s enough to reaffirm the magazine’s “public image as a parochial, old-World-wannabe bastion of upper-income hauteur,” as Vance Lehmkuhl puts it in a slightly different context,  discussing the magazine’s baroque copy editing style.

The piece is triggered by the review of a book about texting, Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 by linguist David Crystal, which seems to have been written to reassure those grammar pedants who worry about language being “destroyed” by people using it in new ways. Crystal’s conclusion seems to be that of any sane descriptive linguist—language will be fine. Nothing is worse for the health of a language than dogmatism about usage.

Menand, though, seems so utterly clueless about texting, I almost expected him to defend voicemail: “In some respects, texting is a giant leap backward in the science of communication. It’s more efficient than semaphore, maybe, but how much more efficient is it than Morse code? With Morse code, to make an “s” you needed only three key presses.” The point of comparison for texting is not Morse code, but talking, which is highly inefficient, not only because it carries with it requisite codes of politeness that slow communication down but also because conversation allows for all sorts of back-channel feedback and non-semantic cues (tone of voice, etc.) that clutter the message. Texting allows people to relay information without having to talk, and frankly, I don’t understand who wouldn’t prefer that in most mobile situations. I like to text not because it’s a “game” or because it imposes formal compositional constraints on my expression (two things that Menand emphasizes in Crystal’s account) but because it preserves the sanctity of real conversation. Menand notes that “People don’t like to have to perform the amount of self-presentation that is required in a personal encounter,” but then fails to draw the conclusion that texting liberates us from the burden of all sorts of unnecessary performance. Not every act of communication needs to be so personal and performative. It’s not the Algonquin round table every time we have something to communicate. Sometimes you just want to confirm that you are meeting at 8:00. And when Menand claims that “Texting is so formulaic that it is nearly anonymous” he reveals his lack of experience with the medium or the witlessness of his texting correspondents. Many text messages I’ve received have made me laugh out loud, and they often reveal a great deal about the person sending them.

Conversation is a practice best reserved for face-to-face encounters; texting helps restore conversation to its natural habitat by making the phone conversation necessary only in rare circumstances. I suspect lots of people share that view, which is why virtually all phones will have a keyboard in a few years, and the only phones without them will be held by the preliterate and technophobes who haven’t got over their resentment of cell-phone culture altogether.

I used to be one of those haters, and I still resent the idea that I should be accessible at all times. But in practice, it hasn’t worked out that way; texting allows me to be not present but still communicating—which is actually quite refreshing. Menand thinks that the appeal of texting is speed, but that’s not how it is for me, anyway. It’s about escaping the hassles of reciprocity in communication. Something is certainly lost in this; much is communicated incidentally in conversation as people wend their way to what they want to say and react to the seemingly extraneous information that enters in to the exchange. But much is gained in the way of emotional efficiency when you can broadcast your intentions and proceed. This seems like a main shift in the way we communicate—social networks and cell-phones and such encourage us to broadcast information about ourselves without particular concern for reciprocity or the particular context our audience might be dealing with. It grants us the gift of impersonality, which is not the same as anonymity—it’s instead a heightened performativity; the posture of a writer toward a public. It requires us to assume a certain self-centeredness, to be sure, but it also respects the audience as well, in that it doesn’t demand their immediate attention. So I think Menand is totally wrong when he claims that “delay is the only disrespect.” The whole point of texting is that delay is your prerogative. You are not required to hold this radiation-emitting device to your ear waiting for a response.


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